Ohio State’s 2,500th baseball win will pass without notice by most, but to those associated with a milestone of any kind…it gives pause for some personal recollection and reflection.
Columbus – Trust me, when the Ohio State Buckeyes beat Northwestern 5-2 on Saturday afternoon to claim its 2,500th baseball win, all-time, I can honestly say that back in 1974, when I was a Buckeye…no one saw that coming.
No, back then I played during what was arguably the four most frustrating years in the history of the program, just five years removed from having won the national championship, and what seemed light years away from every being relevant again.
It wasn’t for a lack of talent. There was talent everywhere.
Billy Sharp, our centerfielder, would sign and play several seasons with the Chicago White Sox.
Barry Bonnell, another outfielder, would spend nine seasons with the Braves and the Mariners.
And Jim Haney, our second baseman for three seasons, while he never signed professionally or played in the big leagues, simply had the best set of hands I ever witnessed on an infielder. When Jimmy turned the double play your COULD NOT see the baseball touch his glove. He was that quick…that slick!
No, there was talent, but there was also an attitude, and understsanding, that compared to football and basketball…baseball simply wasn’t a priority. If you played baseball at Ohio State you were simply a step-child in standing next to Archie Griffin and Jim Clemons.
But it never mattered on game days. And I can honestly say that the 24 guys I played with for four years took as much pride in being a Buckeye as did Griffin and Clemons, notwithstanding the anonymity. They played just as hard.
I took people by surprise when I walked on to the program in the winter of 1971. I never even came out for fall practice because I played in the marching band, and truthfully, I didn’t know there WAS fall baseball practice.
But when I got there I had no trouble assimilating with other freshman recruits, and even veteran letter-winners. I threw strikes; and more, I could throw the curveball for strikes. I discovered that college hitters didn’t want to swing at a breaking pitch, so if I could get ahead with the curve my 85 mile-per-hour fastball looked much faster. I was successful, I got people out…and I made the spring traveling squad as a freshman!
Thinking back now on my four years and those 2,500 wins since OSU baseball began in 1881, I’m very proud of my contribution to that figure. I didn’t throw hard, I hadn’t been recruited, and I didn’t fit the pitching model for Marty Karow, the head coach, who wanted fire-breathing, flame-throwing pitchers…his image of Big Ten baseball. But he had no choice. Faced with a dirge of juniors and seniors who were yet to distinguish themselves; and freshmen ‘newbies’ who couldn’t throw strikes…he had to give me mound time.
I responded on that freshman spring trip by throwing a lot of ground ball outs. And when we came back from Florida I won a start pitching for our JV team against the Marietta College varsity…5-1.
The following Tuesday our varsity starter got hurt in the second inning against Ohio University and I came in to pitch four innings in relief…and won.
That off-season Karow went out to recruit bigger arms for the pitching staff, but the biggest, Andy Stiegemeier, from Kent, Ohio, came to Ohio State on a basketball scholarship to play for Fred Taylor. Andy could throw 90 miles-per-hour but he couldn’t join the team until after our spring trip to Florida. That left me as a default starter on the weekends. Again, I pitched well, winning four of the eleven games we won as a team that year, and led the team in wins, innings pitched, and earned run average.
But this time Karow and Dick Finn, our pitching coach, did find more and bigger arms between my sophomore and junior season…freshmen Clint Knicely, Randy Shade, Russ Pensiero, and Paul Semall. Pensiero and Semall would later sign pro contracts, and those four helped us to a third place finish that season in the Big Ten. But I had little to do with it because while we scored more runs, we didn’t score them when I pitched; and during the latter days of the season I developed a sore arm to the point of it hurting when I even tapped my fingers on a table.
My senior season I didn’t pitch much, won one game in a mop-up role, and made my last start as a collegiate against Michigan State on a day in which we simply had no other available arms. “Go as long as you can,” said Finn. “If you can’t we’ll get a position player to finish.”
Armed with nothing but a batting practice fastball and poor excuse for a curve, I had worked for months on learning to throw a nasty sinker through the aid of applying petroleum jelly to the baseball. It created a heavy spot on the ball and produced a radical drop in the strike zone. It was nearly impossible to hit, but Marty Karow told me if I used it in a game he’d remove me not only from the game, but from the roster. “I don’t like cheaters,” he said bluntly.
That is, unless, it helps you win a game. I gave up five runs in the first inning of that Michigan State start doing it Marty’s way and he came to the mound. “You got nothing,” he said. “So if I were you I’d throw that good sinker you’ve been working on.” I did, and for the next five innings I was unhittable while our offense came back to score 7 runs and we won.”
I kept notes of every game and every appearance I made as a Buckeye, and looking at those notes over the weekend I deduced that in my four years I was the pitcher of record in exactly 9 of the 2,500 wins they celebrated on Saturday night. And I did it simply for the sake of trying, something I took for granted at the time because when you don’t win as a team individual accomplishments don’t mean much, anyway…until maybe 40 years later.
But now I realize that had I not won 9 times 2,500 would not have come so soon – and that I have something in common with the best pitchers in the history of the program…Galen Cisco, Steve Arlin, and Joe Sparma.
Now I realize that had I not won those 9 games I would not have had the confidence to take many of the risks I took later in life.
Now I realize that the number of games we “didn’t” win back then pales in selfish comparison to the 2,500 amassed now by the program; because once a Buckeye, always a Buckeye. My congratulations to everyone that’s played since 1881!
And now, in the twilight of my life, I can proudly claim a certain color to the tapestry of where I’ve been and what I’ve lived. While other ‘Buckeyes’ simply buy their scarlet and gray, I can say…I earned mine.